World War I

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Author: Adam Hodges
Editor: Stanley I. Kutler
Date: 2003
From: Dictionary of American History(Vol. 8. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,207 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1290L

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WORLD WAR I. The United States did not enter World War I until April 1917, although the conflict had begun in August 1914. After an intense period of military buildup and imperial competition, war broke out in Europe between Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers) and Britain, France, and Russia (the Allies). Turkey quickly joined the Central Powers and Italy joined the Allies in 1915.

World War I

Prelude to Involvement

Immediately, President Woodrow Wilson issued a declaration of neutrality. He was committed to maintaining open use of the Atlantic for trade with all the European belligerents. However, British naval supremacy almost eliminated American trade with Germany while shipments to the Allies soared. To counter this trend, German U-boats (submarines) torpedoed U.S. merchant vessels bound for Allied ports. In May 1915, Germans sunk the British passenger ship Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. Strong protest from Wilson subdued the submarine campaign, but it would emerge again as the war ground on and became more desperate. In late January 1917, Germany announced it would destroy all ships heading to Britain. Although Wilson broke off diplomatic ties with Germany, he still hoped to avert war by arming merchant vessels as a deterrent. Nevertheless, Germany began sinking American ships immediately.

In February 1917, British intelligence gave the United States government a decoded telegram from Germany's foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, that had been intercepted en route to his ambassador to Mexico. The

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Gas Attack. American soldiers advance across a field in France in 1918. © CORBIS

Gas Attack. American soldiers advance across a field in France in 1918. © CORBIS

Zimmerman Telegram authorized the ambassador to offer Mexico the portions of the Southwest it had lost to the United States in the 1840s if it joined the Central Powers. But because Wilson had run for reelection in 1916 on a very popular promise to keep the United States out of the European war, he had to handle the telegram very carefully. Wilson did not publicize it at first, only releasing the message to the press in March after weeks of German attacks on American ships had turned public sentiment toward joining the Allies.

Gearing Up for War: Raising Troops and Rallying Public Opinion

On 2 April 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war and four days later all but six senators and fifty representatives voted for a war resolution. The Selective Service Act that was passed the following month, along with an extraordinary number of volunteers, built up the army from less than 250,000 to four million over the course of the conflict. General John Pershing was appointed head of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) and led the first troops to France during the summer. Initially, the nation was woefully unprepared to fight so large a war so far from American soil. The task of reorganizing government and industry to coordinate a war and then of recruiting, training, equipping, and shipping out massive numbers of soldiers was daunting and would proceed slowly. The first serious U.S. military action would not come until April 1918, one year after declaration of war. It would take a gargantuan national effort, one that would forever change the government and its relationship to the citizenry, to get those troops into combat.

Although there is strong evidence that the war was broadly supported—and certainly Americans volunteered and bought Liberty Bonds in droves—the epic scale of the undertaking and the pressure of time led the government, in an unprecedented campaign, to sell the war effort through a massive propaganda blitz. Wilson picked George Creel, a western newspaper editor, to form the COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC INFORMATION (CPI). This organization was charged with providing the press with carefully selected information on the progress of the war. It also worked with the advertising industry to produce eyecatching and emotional propaganda for various agencies involved in the war effort in order to win maximum cooperative enthusiasm form the public. Its largest enterprise was the Four Minute Men program, which sent more than 75,000 speakers to over 750,000 public events to rouse the patriotism of as many as 314 million spectators over the course of the war. The CPI recruited mainly prominent white businessmen and community leaders; however, it did set up a Women's Division and also courted locally prominent African Americans to speak at black gatherings.

Gearing Up for War: The Economy and Labor

The government needed patriotic cooperation, for it was completely unequipped to enforce many of the new regulationsPage 536  |  Top of Article it adopted. It also had to maximize the productive resources of the nation to launch the U.S. war effort and prop up flagging allies. The WAR INDUSTRIES BOARD was charged with gearing up the economy to war production, but it lacked coercive authority. Even the Overman Act of May 1918, which gave the president broad powers to commandeer industries if necessary, failed to convince capitalists to retool completely toward the war effort. The government only took control of one industry, the railroads, in December 1917, and made it quite clear that the measure was only a temporary necessity. In all other industries, it was federal investment—not control—that achieved results. The EMERGENCY FLEET CORPORATION pumped over $3 billion into the nation's dormant shipbuilding industry during the war era. Overall, the effort to raise production was too little and too late for maximizing the nation's military clout. American production was just hitting stride as the war ended, but the threat that it represented did help convince an exhausted Germany to surrender.

The government also sought the cooperation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and involved its top

World War I

officials in the war production effort, but very low unemployment emboldened union workers and it became difficult for the leadership to control the rank and file. Many workers connected Wilson's war goals—democracy and self-determination for nations—to struggles for a voice in their workplaces through union representation. However, the number of striking workers was lower in 1917 and 1918 than in 1916. The government hastily created labor arbitration boards and eventually formed a NATIONAL WAR LABOR BOARD (NWLB) in April 1918. The government had considerable success in resolving disputes and convincing employers to at least temporarily give some ground to the unions. When this novel arbitration framework disappeared along with government contracts in 1919, workers participated in the largest strike wave in the nation's history—over four million participated in walkouts during that year.

Women and African Americans in the War

For women workers the war also raised hopes, but as with labor as a whole, they were dashed after the conflict. The number of women working as domestic servants and in

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African American Troops. Members of the all-black Fifteenth New York Infantry Regiment (commanded by white officers) stand at attention in France in 1918. Redesignated the 369th Infantry, the regiment served in combat with the French army.  © CORBIS

African American Troops. Members of the all-black Fifteenth New York Infantry Regiment (commanded by white officers) stand at attention in France in 1918. Redesignated the 369th Infantry, the regiment served in combat with the French army. © CORBIS

laundering or garment making declined sharply during the war, while opportunities grew just as dramatically in office, industrial, commercial, and transportation work. The very limited place of women in the economy had opened up and government propaganda begged women to take jobs. However, few of these new opportunities, and even then only the least attractive of them, went to nonwhite women. Mainly confined to low-skilled work, many women were let go when the postwar economy dipped or were replaced by returning soldiers. Although women did gain, and hold on to, a more prominent place in the AFL, they were still only 10 percent of the membership in 1920. The government made some attempts through the NWLB to protect the rights of working women, although it backed off after the war. But women fought on their own behalf on the suffrage front and finally achieved the right to vote in 1920.

African Americans also made some gains but suffered a terrible backlash for them. There were ninety-six LYNCHINGs of blacks during 1917 and 1918 and seventy in 1919 alone. Blacks were moving out of the South in massive numbers during the war years, confronting many white communities in the North with a substantial nonwhite presence for the first time. Northward migration by blacks averaged only 67,000 per decade from 1870 through 1910 and then exploded to 478,000 during the 1910s. This GREAT MIGRATION gave blacks access to wartime factory jobs that paid far better than agricultural work in the South, but like white women, they primarily did lowskilled work and were generally rejected by the union movement. The hatred that many of these migrants faced in the North forced them into appalling ghettos and sometimes led to bloodshed. In July 1917, a race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, left thirty-nine African Americans dead. The recently formed NAACP championed justice and democratic rights for African Americans at a time when black soldiers were helping to guarantee them for the peoples of Europe. Although job opportunities would recede after the war, the new racial diversity outside the South would not—and neither would the fight for equal rights.

Repression and the War

The fragility of a war effort that relied on a workforce of unprecedented diversity and on cooperation from emboldened unions led the federal government to develop for the first time a substantial intelligence-gathering capability for the purpose of suppressing elements it thought might destabilize the system. The primary targets were anti-capitalist radicals and enemy aliens (German and Austro-Hungarian immigrants). The former group was targeted through the ESPIONAGE ACT of June 1917, which was amended by the Sedition Act in May 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia convinced the governmentPage 538  |  Top of Article to seek even wider powers to control public speech. The Department of Justice, through its U.S. attorneys and Bureau of Investigation field agents, cooperated with local and state authorities to suppress radical organizers. Many government agencies developed at least some intelligence capacity and the private, but government sanctioned, American Protective League recruited perhaps 300,000 citizen-spies to keep tabs on their fellow Americans. In this climate of suspicion, German-speaking aliens had the most cause to be afraid. War propaganda dehumanized Germans and blasted their culture and language. Well over a half-million enemy aliens were screened by the Department of Justice and were restricted in their mobility and access to military and war production sites. Several thousand enemy aliens deemed disloyal were interned until the conflict was over.

American Soldiers in Battle

The end of the war was nowhere in sight when U.S. troops first saw significant fighting in the spring of 1918, after the new Bolshevik government in Russia pulled out of the war in March and Germany switched its efforts to the western front. Under British and French pressure, General Pershing allowed his troops to be blended with those of the Allies—ending his dream of the AEF as an

Trench Warfare. U.S. Marines fire from their trenches during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the fall of 1918, which resulted in the signing of the armistice on 11 November.

Trench Warfare. U.S. Marines fire from their trenches during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the fall of 1918, which resulted in the signing of the armistice on 11 November.

independent fighting force. Now under foreign command, American troops helped stop the renewed German offensive in May and June. The First U.S. Army was given its own mission in August: to push the Germans back to the southeast and northwest of Verdun and then seize the important railroad facilities at Sedan. The campaign got under way in September and American troops succeeded in removing the Germans from the southeast of Verdun, although the latter were already evacuating that area. The MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE to the northwest of Verdun was launched in late September and proved to be much more bloody. Although the German position was heavily fortified, well over a million American soldiers simply overwhelmed all resistance. This massive and relentless operation convinced the German command that its opportunity to defeat the Allies before American troops and industry were fully ready to enter the fray had been lost. As exhausted as the United States was fresh, the Central Powers surrendered on 11 November 1918.

In the end, two million American troops went to France and three-quarters of them saw combat. Some 60,000 died in battle and over 200,000 were wounded. An additional 60,000 died of disease, many from the influenza pandemic that killed over twenty million across the globePage 539  |  Top of Article in 1918 and 1919. Many surviving combatants suffered psychological damage, known as shell shock, from the horrors of trench warfare. The casualties would have been far greater had America entered the war earlier or been prepared to deploy a large army more quickly.

Wilson hoped that after the war the United States would become part of the League of Nations that was forming in Europe to ensure that collective responsibility replaced competitive alliances. But America was retreating inward, away from the postwar ruin and revolutionary chaos of Europe. The government was suppressing radicals at home with unprecedented furor in 1919 and 1920 in what is known as the Red Scare. Progressive wartime initiatives that further involved the government in the lives of its citizens withered against this reactionary onslaught. But the notion of government coordination of a national effort to overcome crisis had been born, and the Great Depression and World War II would see this new commitment reemerge, strengthened.


Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917–1918. New York: Norton, 1999. Focuses on military action.

Greenwald, Maurine Weiner. Women, War, and Work: The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood, 1980.

Kennedy, Kathleen. Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens: Women and Subversion during World War I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Luebke, Frederick. Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974.

McCartin, Joseph. Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912–1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Focuses on workers and war production.

Preston, William, Jr. Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903–1933. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. Focuses on home front repression.

Venzon, Anne Cipriano, ed. The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1995. Good general work.

Zieger, Robert. America's Great War: World War I and the American Experience. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. Stresses the home front.

Zeiger, Susan. In Uncle Sam's Service: Women Workers with the American Expeditionary Force, 1917–1919. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Adam Hodges

See also Internment, Wartime ; Palmer Raids ; Riots ; Sedition Acts ; Women in Public Life, Business, and Professions and vol. 9: America's War Aims: The Fourteen Points; Dedicating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; Peace and Bread in Time of War; The War in Its Effect upon Women; Letters from the Front, World War I, 1918; Lyrics of "Over There," 1917.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3401804601